August 12, 2011
Aftershock to Economy Has a Precedent That Holds Lessons
By JAMES B. STEWART
Like earthquakes, financial crises seem to be accompanied by aftershocks, like the one we’ve been living through this week. They can feel every bit as bad as the crisis itself. But economic history and academic research suggest they can set the stage for a sustainable recovery — and eventual sharp stock market gains.
The events of the last few weeks — gridlock in Washington, brinksmanship over raising the debt ceiling, Standard & Poor’s downgrade of long-term Treasuries, renewed fears about European debt and a dizzying plunge in the stock market — bear an intriguing resemblance to some of the events of 1937-38, the so-called recession within the Depression, with a major caveat: it was a lot worse back then. The Dow Jones industrial average dropped 49 percent from its peak in 1937. Manufacturing output fell by 37 percent, a steeper decline than in 1929-33. Unemployment, which had been slowly declining, to 14 percent from 25 percent, surged to 19 percent. Price declines led to deflation.
“The parallels to what is happening now are very strong,” Robert McElvaine, author of “The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941” and a professor of history at Millsaps College, said this week. Then as now, policy makers were struggling with how and when to turn off the fiscal stimulus and monetary easing that had been used to combat the initial crisis.
Are we at similar risk today? David Bianco, chief investment strategist for Merrill Lynch Bank of America, told me this week that “the market is collapsing faster than any fundamentals would warrant.” The possibility that the United States faces a recession as bad as 1937’s seems far-fetched. Nonetheless, Mr. Bianco notes that the market is now pricing in an 80 percent chance of recession, one likely to be more severe than in 1991. (He said Merrill Lynch places the odds at 35 percent.) He noted that there had been only three instances when such a steep market decline was not followed by recession: 1966, 1987 (after the October stock market crash) and 1998 (after the implosion of Long Term Capital Management.) “Confidence is shaken and rapidly falling,” he said, a problem worsened by falling stock prices.